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Bobby Fischer, from American hero to paranoid fugitive

other Updated: Jan 18, 2008 20:21 IST

AFP
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Bobby Fischer, who died aged 64, was a high school dropout who may have been the greatest chess player of all time, but ended his life in eccentric seclusion.

The US-born player had lived for the last two years in Iceland, after serving eight months behind bars in Japan in a new twist to a life that had gone downhill ever since his moment of glory at age 29.

The Brooklyn-bred genius made headlines around the world when he wrested the world chess title from Soviet domination in 1972, beating world champion Boris Spassky, in a Cold War chess showdown in Reykjavik known as the match of the century.

He was said to have an IQ higher than Albert Einstein's and once thought his gift would win him undying fortune. He would make extravagant demands over matches in a way more commonly seen in boxing.

But while the theatrics made him a celebrity - and are credited with helping him unnerve his opponents - he also succeeded in alienating himself from all but a small band of friends and chess enthusiasts.

Personally urged on by Henry Kissinger to play for his country in 1972, Fischer repeatedly said he despised the United States.

Despite having a Jewish mother, Fischer was a vicious anti-Semite, using broadcasts at far-flung radio stations to accuse Jews of everything from his legal woes to an alleged conspiracy to kill off elephants.

And though he became engaged in detention to the head of the Japan Chess Association, Miyoko Watai, she said her fiance hated the Japanese nation and people.

The reclusive Fischer's return to the spotlight began on September 11, 2001 when he rang up a Filipino radio station to hail the "wonderful news" of the terrorist attacks and launch a profanity-laden anti-Jewish tirade.

"One can only speculate that his remarks on September 11 so outraged the US administration that the call went out, let's get Bobby Fischer," said David Edmonds, who co-authored a book on the 1972 match, "Bobby Fischer Goes to War."

In one part of the September 11 broadcast, Fischer declared that "nobody has single-handedly done more for the US than me" by making it seem "as an intellectual country."

"But now I'm not useful anymore. You see, the Cold War is over and now they want to wipe me out, get everything I have, put me into prison," he said.

In the 1972 "match of the century" in Iceland, Fischer, throwing regular tantrums over the position of cameras and the audience, relied on his own wit to end 24 years of Soviet chess supremacy by dethroning Spassky, who had by his side an army of Russian master strategists.

"For two years of his life he completely and utterly dominated chess like no one has before," Edmonds said of Fischer.

"I think many in the chess world don't want Bobby Fischer's anti-Semitic and violently anti-American remarks to sully his reputation as one of the greatest chess players of all time."

Fischer, whose chess education had consisted of locking himself in a room for days on end facing off against himself, refused to play after his triumph and was stripped of his title in 1975.

Fischer's paranoia was reinforced in 1981 when his scruffy appearance made him a mistaken suspect in a California bank robbery. In another of his interviews on Filipino radio, Fischer accused the media of trying to "poison the public against me."

"They constantly use the words eccentric, eccentric, eccentric, weird," Fischer said. "I am boring. I am boring!"

Fischer returned to chess in 1992 with a rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia, then in the throes of the Balkan wars.

At a press conference he spat on a US government notice warning him he was breaking sanctions and proceeded to defeat Spassky once again, winning more than three million dollars on which he boasted he would never pay tax.

Fischer is not known to have stepped foot since in the United States, where he faced 10 years in prison for playing the chess match.

On July 13, 2004, Fischer was taken into custody at Tokyo's Narita airport for travelling on a passport which Washington said was revoked.

With Japan deliberating for months on whether to send him to the United States, Iceland came to his rescue in 2005, granting him citizenship in tribute to his role in making the island - and the game of chess - famous in 1972.

As the United States vowed to arrest him if he ever set foot again in his homeland, Fischer began his new life with typical anti-Jewish slurs and by lambasting his country of origin.

"The Jew-controlled United States is evil. They talk about the axis of evil. What about the allies of evil? What about the US, England, Japan, Australia and so on? These are the evil doers," said Fischer.